Words via satellite end long wait for news of Baghdad's survivors

With phones out, people joyfully pay $10 a minute to contact family abroad

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The question in one house in Canada yesterday was whether Widad Shamma was alive, whether she had survived the bombing of Baghdad and ensuing chaos.

Her son, Wahim, lives there, and he had had no word from her since the war began. So, Shamma, 63, took her place in line yesterday and waited with other survivors for more than three hours to get her hands on a satellite telephone operated by a couple of entrepreneurial Iraqis to talk to her son.

"How are you? How are you? I am fine!" she yelled into the phone.

The connection, though, had broken down. She was yelling to nobody. The one minute she was allotted to make the call expired, so she walked away with tears filling her eyes, knowing that her son might go another day thinking she was dead. She would be allowed a second try in 10 minutes, so she shuffled back behind the others and waited in the sun.

With phone service out in Baghdad, survivors have had no way to end the agony of the unknown for their friends and families around the world, to let them know through a crackling phone connection that as bad as those pictures of the bombs falling had appeared on CNN or Al-Jazeera, those bombs had not killed them.

So, all day yesterday, people like Shamma lined up to pay $10 for a one-minute call on a satellite phone to let loved ones know that, yes, they were alive.

The fiercest fighting in Baghdad knocked out the phones more than a week ago, so family members who fled Iraq because of the war, or for work or a better life before it, must have been freezing each time their phone rang, hoping for news, dreading it, then not getting any.

Until yesterday.

Welcome news

"Hello! Hello! We are alive! We are alive and in good health, thanks to God!" shouted Malik Shaker, 42, who reached his younger brother Ali in Germany. "All of us are safe, all of us are in good health. I can talk only one minute. It is so good to hear your voice!"

Invariably, of course, people yelled into the phone quickly, as if announcing a hockey game, because a minute can seem like a second under such circumstances. Some people smiled as they spoke, the phone crammed to one ear, a hand over the other. Some cried. Some seemed as if delivering the news, "We are alive! We are alive!" had somehow confirmed that fact to themselves for the first time.

"Don't worry about us," Shaker told his brother as the men operating the satellite telephone grabbed for it at the end of his minute and he turned his shoulders to keep it for a few more precious seconds.

"The situation is finished!" Shaker said. "OK. Bye! Bye!"

After the phone had been wrested away, he walked away smiling with tears in his eyes, as if it were his brother who was in so much danger, as if he had just found out his brother was alive, perhaps because if a loved one thinks you are dead, you might feel as if you, and maybe they, have indeed died just a bit.

"He thought I was killed," Shaker said. "He thought he had no more brother. Now he is happy, I know, but he was crying so I could not understand him."

Haider Sabah, 30, had waited nearly four hours, and when she could not get in touch with her aunt, she called a cousin and got through.

"Call everybody because I am not dead!" she yelled into the phone. "I am OK and my mother is OK, so tell everyone they do not have to worry. We are alive!"

Ahmed Yousef, 31, was the only member of his family to stay in Iraq, his mother, father and two sisters having fled to Syria in the days before the war.

"It is your son! Your son!" he yelled when his connection went through. "Everything is fine. It is time for better days!"

A cottage industry

The satellite phone is the latest cottage industry in Baghdad. The entrepreneurs said they had the idea at the start of the war. The phone was connected to a power converter connected to a truck battery. Their friends passed out slips of paper with numbers on them so there was a bit of order to the process. Customers wrote down their names and the phone numbers they wanted to call, then waited their turn to, hopefully, deliver the good news.

Shamma would get her next try after Jalal Ibrahim, 65, who was trying to reach his only son, Hamid, in Sweden. He and his wife and his mother survived the war, but their son did not know that.

He handed his slip of paper to the man operating the phone. He dialed. Ibrahim put the phone to his ear and hunched over to listen. He waited. Waited. Looked at the phone. Put it back to his ear.

"Hello, my son! We are well! I am calling from the street. Call your sister and tell her that we are in good health! Tell her the situation is good!" He repeated himself; satellite phones often fade in and out. "We are alive!"

The man handling the line grabbed the phone from Ibrahim, who remained nothing but grateful. He pushed up on his toes and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"If I had more I would pay him," he said. "My son thought I was dead. He was hysterical. He said, `Father, you are alive!' and then he kept crying."

Shamma returned to the phone to try again to reach her son in Canada. She placed the phone to her ear but without removing her head scarf. She waited, waited, shifted from foot to foot. The man operating the phone had an eye on his watch. Darkness would fall soon and the whole operation would shut down, and the elderly mother would have to try again tomorrow if there was no answer.

She hunched over, and her small frame disappeared in the crowd.

A minute later she emerged from those waiting to use the phone, those hoping for a connection and hoping the line would not be busy and hoping someone would answer.

As she shuffled away she again had tears in her eyes. She stopped for a moment and smiled gently. She would not have to return to try again.

"My son now is also crying," she said.

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